The dark web is a hiding ground for crooks but it’s also a home for heroes. What lurks beneath the surface of the known web, asks Ian Vella.

Edward Snowden, who in 2013 leaked classified information from the US government’s National Security Agency, unknowingly helped popularise the dark web after it was reported that he repeatedly used this technology to communicate with journalists. He even managed to evade the most sophisticated spying ­technology used by the US.

Julian Assange, the controversial founder of Wikileaks who is considered an enemy of the State by the US, began hosting his website on the deep web in 2004 and no one ever managed to trace it back to him.

Then in 2006, Assange, who has spent the past two years under political asylum at the Ecuador embassy in London, decided to go public. That is when his problems started. Nevertheless he still recommends to people who decide to reveal information about perceived government wrongdoing, to use the deep web to communicate with him so that he can conceal their identity and avoid reprisals.

Search engines cache the web almost daily to be able to provide results according to the search keywords we use. Nevertheless, they are only able to spider a fraction of the entire internet. There is even a larger interconnection of websites lurking below the surface. Most people have never been around the dark web even though recent rough estimates claim that the dark web is actually a hundred times larger than the known web we surf daily.

You cannot reach such depths when surfing using standard web browsers like Chrome or Explorer or just by using Google or Yahoo. Specialised software like the TOR browser are generally used to access pages ending in .onion, so named because the encryption used for such pages is similar to peeling an onion. Messages transmitted through the dark web via several network nodes are peeled: each router removes a layer of encryption to uncover further instructions until the final destination is reached. This offers a degree of unprecedented encryption and anonymity which not even the .https secure communication can ever reach.

The dark web has been compared to an island where no legal jurisdictions exist. This doesn’t mean that the dark web is completely negative: far from it. The dark web is being used right now to communicate in countries – such as China, Syria and North Korea – where governmental controls on the internet are strict. Just consider that until a few years ago, the famous photo depicting a lone ordinary Chinese citizen standing in front of a military tank in Tiananmen Square during the protests of June 5, 1989, was never seen by anyone in China; today, thanks to the deep web, not only can such citizens communicate with the outside world but they are also able to do a limited amount of business transactions as well.

Recent rough estimates claim that the dark web is actually a hundred times larger than the known web we surf daily

During the Libyan uprising, the dark web played an important role in helping anti-regime forces to receive updated satellite images and communications without being intercepted by pro-Ghaddafi forces who at the time controlled the entire Libyan internet and telephone communications network. After the uprising, it was discovered that the Libyan authorities not only had the technology to intercept any communication or file transmitted via the normal internet but also had software to change files in real time to misinform the enemy. It was only possible to circumvent this by using the dark web as a ­com­munication platform.

Just like anything else in life, not all activities on the dark web can be described as noble. Silk Road was perhaps the most infamous online marketplace hosted on the deep web. You could buy, sell or hire anything anonymously on this online marketplace, including illegal drugs, firearms and assassinations. At its peak in early 2013, the site had 10,000 listings, around 70 per cent of which were for drugs.

Various US law enforcement authorities spent years trying to trace the operator of this website until finally in October 2013, Ross William Ulbricht was arrested on suspicion that he was running this website after an undercover FBI agent lured Ulbricht to do business in the open and not on the dark web itself. The FBI managed to seize around $28m in bitcoins from Ulbricht’s residence. However due to the anonymous nature of the technology used, the FBI is finding it very difficult in court to prove any connection between the alleged owner of Silk Road and his operations. Legal experts are expecting a not guilty verdict, although Ulbricht might receive a prison sentence for not declaring and paying any taxes on the millions of dollars he managed to acquire in the last years. Many are drawing comparisons between Ulbricht and Al Capone, the 1930s mafia boss who was only indicted for not paying any taxes.

However, taking out one criminal kingpin only makes way for another one ready to fill in the void. A few days after Silk Road was taken down, a new website called Agora took its place on the deep web, offering basically the same services. Agora is still currently operational.

The deep web is not just a hiding ground for crooks; it is also home for heroes. Fernando Caudevilla, a Spanish medical doctor known online as DoctorX, is one of the many deep web inhabitants. He has set up a website providing immediate replies and provides help to drug users. He is very respected and sought after in this community and he is credited with having saved the lives of thousands of people around the world who overdosed and refused to go to hospital to seek emergency medical help because of fear they might end up having to face the legal ­system afterwards.

A lone anonymous hacker calling himself by the pseudonym Intangir is doing something which many law enforcement agencies all around the world are incapable of doing because of lack of technical expertise.

This hacker tracks online paedophile rings and shuts them down. He also steals credit card details and data which could lead to expose these paedophiles. His Twitter account gets flooded with praise whenever a bust is made. However, he has also attracted ­enemies who have publicly posted millionaire bounties to be paid to anyone who is able to reveal his identity.

Intangir says that he is not afraid as he is quite sure that thanks to the deep web, no one will ever be able to trace his online identity back to his real life. He is confident that while by day, he leads a normal life, at night, he can turn into an online vigilante, delivering his own justice in a place where law enforcement is practically non-existent.

Ian Vella is a search engine ­optimisation specialist.

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